Words Do Not Mean Things

US renames 5 places that used racist slur for a Native woman

The word is squaw which has only recently come to be a racist slur because some people want a cudgel to beat others. If you look at the etymology of the word, and if you’re looking at an online source if you scroll past all the verbiage describing how this is a racist, vulgar, double plus ungood badthink badmouth, you’ll find this comes from a Massachusett (the tribe for which the commonwealth is named) word for woman or younger woman.

In common usage, I’ve seen the word used to describe a Native American woman (of any tribe–remember, the natives were tribal, and sometimes those tribes slaughtered other tribes–history, anyone?). So it’s a single word to describe a human person of a particular heritage. It does indicate “race,” but I haven’t seen it used much as a slur or to denigrate someone unless you already think that someone of a particular heritage is inferior. Which I don’t because most squaws are not blondes.

In my experience, it’s fallen out of common usage anyway as the cowboys and Indians mythos has fallen out of the common culture. For example, through the 90s, you see the baddest word fairly frequently, but not this other not the baddest but bad word (and if I start using that expression for not baddest word racial descriptions it will get confusing). Of course, I guess I read a lot of urban suspense novels and not a lot of things set in the southwest.

This online source usage note is rich, though:

It can be very offensive when members of the dominant culture appropriate piecemeal bits of language to imitate or perform impressions of an ethnic or racial minority. Borrowed words like firewater, squaw, and wigwam, or imitative words like how were once used for comedic effect, but they are now considered insensitive to Native Americans and their cultures.

My quibbles (which in this sense means complete disagreement with) the usage note (which is much like what you find on other dictionary sites and Wikipedia):

  1. English is nothing if not a thief of words from other languages–because if they have a better or more concise way of expressing it, we want to use that. But you don’t see the Greeks and the Romans rising up, much less Hispanics or the Spanish, the Italians, or the French rising up. Well, I am sure the French try.
  2. Firewater would be a compound word the natives might have borrowed from the English (I say might have because I have only seen it in pop culture sources, not original or historical documents). So how is it that English speakers would be appropriating it?

Never mind; it’s not about speaking and writing with concision. It’s about beating others with any cosh you can.

Also, if full disclosure, I used firewater in a video I shot some decade ago. Because I’m a racist. Or a pedant. Which some parts of the disculture might think they’re normalizing for me, but they’re not.

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